“I Know all that Shit Comes and Goes”: An Interview with Ish Butler

Zilla talks with the legendary Ish Butler about his early days in Digable Planets, his favorite books, and creating art ahead of its time.
By    September 5, 2016
Art By Dewey Saunders
Art By Dewey Saunders

Every time I think of my Top 5 MC’s list, I always spit out the same three names without thinking: Nas, Ghostface, Aesop Rock. That’s just my personal list, not The Greatest 5 MC’s or 5 Most Influential MC’s. So my top 3 is always solidified. But when I fill out the last 2 slots in my head, it tends to revolve around guys that have been around for a while, or have a new album out, or just might’ve popped back up on my streaming playlist. Mos Def, Posdnous, Biggie, Raekwon, Redman. Sometimes I think heavy about Cam’ron, or Q-Tip, or Busta. Then I have to consider Kanye—is he a legit Top 5 MC contender or Top 5 Producer? El-P. Doom. Black Thought. Three Stacks. Geechi Suede. Cube. Jay. These are things I think about as if someone is going to quiz me at any moment and I better be prepared. It’s stressful.

But one guy I always forget and then add back to the list is Ish aka Butterfly aka Palaceer Lazarro. I’ve been a fan of his for more than half of my life. Strictly as an MC, I can nerd out about what I like about his technical skills, his flow, his voice, and his instincts for hours and hours. But as an artist, he can never be duplicated. First album: Grammy and hit single. Second album: masterpiece that goes double wood. Then…he’s gone. Ish pops up on “Swing” with the original slang therapists Camp Lo in 1997, and doesn’t reappear until 2003 under the moniker Cherrywine. That album comes and goes during a time when every rapper from his era seemed to quit rap to ape Prince, sing offkey, and be “weird.” Another 6 years slide off the calendar, and then Shabazz Palaces becomes The Next Shit.

I can’t spit out my three favorite Ish verses, or pinpoint how his style is embedded in everyone who followed him. He doesn’t fit into any typical Greatest Rapper Category to me. He’s elusive. He’s slick. He has never repeated himself. His weird shit isn’t forced. His street shit isn’t acknowledged. His outfits smash Kanye’s. I have listened to Blowout Comb for 20 years and will listen to it the rest of my life.

I own everything with Shabazz Palaces’ name on it and still can’t tell you which one I love the most. Ish is a puzzle that you can’t solve. I’m always chasing him, decoding him, then waiting for him to go away and come back. He has also put out three times as many releases in Shabazz Palaces as he did in Digable Planets, and now that Digable is back on the road, I was lucky enough to speak to him on the phone. What do you say on the phone to one of your top 5 favorite rappers? Lucky for me, after we chatted, Ish remains one of my gods. He was cool, cordial, thoughtful, spacey, philosophical, and hip hop as hell. And he referred to dope shit as “jazzy”. —Zilla Rocca

What are you guys up to?

Ishmael Butler: Sound checkin’. We in Salt Lake City about to rock in a minute.

I’m actually in Philly and I’m a big, big fan of you guys from way back when. I know you probably got a lot going on.

Ishmael Butler: Nah, nah take your time we just getting it together.

I wanted to ask you, obviously I’ve been a fan from way back when to everything you have with Shabazz Palaces and Cherrywine.

Ishmael Butler: Thank you man.

For sure. I think the interesting thing about you is that, from all your projects, is that there’s a really interesting visual element from the artwork to even the video from “Cool Like Dat” to the Blowout Comb packaging to all the Shabazz stuff. I was doing a lot of research on you from past interviews, you went to film school?

Ishmael Butler: Yes.

Can you tell me a little bit about that, what kind of pushed that because I feel like you guys have always been really visual and don’t get a lot of credit for it.

Ishmael Butler: I’ve always responded with motivation from visual shit. You know, films, images, photography but also paintings and sculptures and all that shit so I never saw art as compartmentalized, you feel me? Music and dance and painting, writing, films; they all seem like one movement to me. Any chance I get to incorporate ’em all together I do it.

Give me an idea then about how deliberate your visuals have been from the beginning to now. I think the thing I like about what you’ve always done is you’ve always looked visually interesting. Is that just kind of a continuation of everything you’re saying, kind of blending it all together, or is it “I wanna look like this today, this tomorrow”. Is it mapped or is it just kind of vibed out?

Ishmael Butler: It’s vibed out. But to me vibe is the map. Because if you map something out you’re not really responding to whatever influences is happening at the time and that’s just not jazzy, you know what I mean? Right there, you’re at the point of impact, it’s the opportunity to touch on all those bases so that’s how I look at it. It’s all deliberate but it’s all instinctive too and all kind of touched on by the moment.

You can’t do no album cover ’till you done with all the songs. It’s like that. But with the directors and stuff it’s like, even art directors and guys that do the art work for the labels it’s like, finish the record give them the music, I fuck with them heavy so it’s not like Imma tell them do this, do that. They jazzy in their own right. I’m fucking wit’ em because I know they can interpret with flair.

From the era you came up until now, I think you placed a huge premium on being fly. The language, from the phrasing, from the outfits, to the sound, to the presentation and I think people don’t really pick up on that. They kind of either dwell on the jazzy stuff from back then or the outer space stuff from Shabazz. I feel like it’s all different levels of flyness. Was that a New York thing, was that a Seattle thing?

Ishmael Butler: I think it started off as just a black African-American thing. And I say America because here is where we forged the sort of stylistic outlook and ideology that all of us coming up now kind of floss. My uncle, my uncle’s friends, my mom’s friends, my pops, my mom’s boyfriends after my pop, my grandma’s, my aunties. It wasn’t until real recently that the homogenization of style really happened so regionally and even regionally inside of every city different sections; take Philly, you always could tell a South Philly brother from a North Philly brother by the way his fade was cut and what kind of sneakers he wore.

To me it always taught to me and showed me that it was an expression of your instinct and uniqueness to accentuate whatever flyness it was. You started out sort of mimicking but then you realize these guys are attractive and women are attractive because they figured out they own style. So it was ideological and philosophical and intellectual and also existential realizations that these people had come to and were passing down to us through their actions and shit so yeah I mean, I appreciate that observation and it’s real.

Thanks man. I think that kind of ties in to the guys you tour with and are doing stuff with. Does that kind of explain the magnetic attraction you have with Camp Lo?

Ishmael Butler: Definitely. We be teasing them on the trip because we be like ‘Man how ya’ll got 100 outfits everyday?’ But they, that’s how they’re built and they come from that era that spawned so many of us in that way.

I think “Swing” off Uptown Saturday Night is a perfect rap song.

Ishmael Butler: Thank you man. Big shoutout out to Ski Beatz for the coldest beats man!

His work with Camp Lo, I’ll put them up against anybody, just the chemistry they have. The actual amount of cameos you’ve had over the years ranges from Camp Lo even to guys like my homie Lushlife, you rapped on his stuff, what’s it like to work with additional rappers outside of your camp?

Ishmael Butler: You know, I’m not up to thinking that just because you like or love a motherfucker doesn’t mean that you should jump on something with him. I feel like music is super intimate. There’s dudes that I love what they do but I would approach just jumping on something with them with, I don’t wanna say caution, but the proper thought because I get it now. It’s disposable now. It’s more about the look of it on a blog than the actual content of the sound.

‘Oh these two fucked with each other I like ’em both oh that’s crazy I never heard of this guy now I heard of him now lemme go.’ I get all that. I feel like that dilutes essential things, you know motherfuckers should just keep within they group you know and within their output. With the Lushlife thing, I appreciated that because he let me remix a song and told me that ‘Hey if you wanna get on it and boom boom boom.’ The brother let me do my thing and I appreciate that. Camp Lo, I fuck with them too. I love all the stuff I did but I don’t do it that much.

I think that what makes it kind of more special. Now when you look at a lot of rap records it’s kind of the same 6 or 7 names that pop up on everybody’s album and then 6 months go by and it’s another set of 6 or 7 names. Like you said, it becomes more disposable, when you did the song with Jake One, at the time you hadn’t been on anybody’s song in a while so you see that it kind of gives it more weight where you’re like “Whoa!” I think it makes it more precious like you said rather than just hopping on everything.

There’s one person selfishly, and I was reading some of your interviews talking about somebody you’re a big fan of is Roc Marciano. I’ve worked with him, I got a verse from him years ago, I gotta verse from Geechi Suede and these are some of my favorite rappers ever and I wanted to work with them. Selfishly, whatever you need, what would entice that to happen, working with Roc Marci, because I feel like it’s a straight line between you, him, and Camp Lo.

Ishmael Butler: Yeah with a situation like that, it would be like I would only want to do it if was something that the brother really wanted to do, not something that because somebody suggested it to him and he was like ‘Yeah aight fuck it.’ I got a lot of reverence for him but I don’t require it, you feel me? I don’t require it reciprocated just because I give it out. I ain’t like that. If it’s something that the brother’s into because he fucks with me, say no more. To me, he’s the best, smoking’. I think Geechi is also one of the best smoking too but with Roc, he’s something else.

He’s created a lot of songs in the past 5 or 6 years and it’s time for him to retake the belt. I don’t know if you heard the song he just put out with Alchemist a week ago. It’s crazy. And then Geechi just put out a video today. It’s a great time to be a rap fan. Another really dope thing about you is, I was reading the Gonjasufi interview with Pitchfork that kind of put you guys on the map a couple years back, when he leaked out the idea of Shabazz Palaces of like this underground dope thing. He talked about how you gave him the book, The 12th Planet, do you suggest books to friends or family a lot?

Ishmael Butler: Well you know Mach [Gonjasufi] is my cousin so Mach used to be around my crib because he’s my baby’s mom’s cousin. Me and him would be like, he’d come over to the house, he’d be in my room, we’d be chilling so I think it was that intimacy at that time that I was like he might’ve been looking through some shit and I was like ‘Yo man take this, take that.’ Yeah friends and family of course I can suggest stuff. And also I get stuff suggested to me.

What’s the last book you read?

Ishmael Butler: You know I stay reading a lot of different things at once. Right now I’m reading a small leaflet called Anarchy and Ecstasy it’s like out of ‘Frisco I think in the late ’70s and it’s kind of an existential book about man’s disconnection with the meaning of nature and wilderness. It applies to now but I’m also reading this sci-fi shit. I read a lot of sci-fi my man Richard Morgan got a joint called Thirteen, that’s my tour book for this run.

I was thinking about you guys last year because I went to Seattle for the first time last summer. Me and my wife we had a thing called a babymoon where you take a trip before you have a baby and you just go wherever you want to go. We went to Seattle because I was always fascinated by the Northwest even though I’m a Philly guy. We went from Seattle and drove down to San Francisco.

When I was in Seattle, it was kind of unnerving because I was always fascinated by the area but when I was there it’s kind of spooky because you’re downtown, you’re in a super metropolis area, there’s a huge Starbucks roastery and people everywhere and then you turn your head and look back and there’s a mountain. I started thinking about your music and how it made more sense to me being in Seattle. I was like “Now I get it.” How does it leave its fingerprints on you? How do you create based on being home or leaving home?

Ishmael Butler: I think my answer that I feel that came to my head just now is that, what you’re doing is something that I could respect because you have the talent of observation and also mixed with an intense passion. It’s people like you that can pick out these idiosyncrasies that an artist displays when they’re just doing their instinctive and natural thing. For me, I know it’s real but I can’t put my finger on it because I’m just doing it. Someone like you who was in that situation and starts to understand it probably could speak more to it then I could, you feel me?

What you were saying to me reminded me when Ghostface made Supreme Clientele, and everyone was questioning his lyrics like, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying. You’re saying 6 and a half monkeys, 12 Nazis, what does that mean?,’ and he’s like, “It made sense when I thought it and wrote it and said it and that’s all that matters. I don’t have to explain everything I put out it’s for you to kind of parse through and listen to it on your own but it’s dope to me and I’m gonna stand by it.”

I think that kind of ties in to a lot of what you do and every time I listen to your records I pick up newer stuff. Even Shabazz, I’m still unpacking the last record, it’s been about a year or two and I’m still finding new pockets of it. So I guess what you guys are doing now, how exhilarating is it for you guys because Digable has stood the test of time based off two records from 20 years ago and you’re still thriving. A lot of your instincts and ideas about the industry were true. You guys have just done what you want to do and make great records and people caught on when they did.

Ishmael Butler: It’s kind of surreal in a sense. When you doing it, like you said you just vibing off the instinct. Every time I’m out here at a show and I see people coming to the show, show’s selling out and shit in D.C. and I’m just like “Man, what?!” It’s unreal. It’s really unreal. I know that it’s, I know how to think so unhealthy thoughts is trying to dwell or pick something out of this kind of stuff that means something about me personally that I avoid doing that, but man objectively and subjectively it’s just beautiful and really amazing. I appreciate it a lot. I think about my mom with it a lot because she always wanted me to go to school and finish up school and everything like that and was kind of beefing with me because you know shit, ‘You gon’ make it as a rapper?’

Especially back then it wasn’t a viable career choice.

Ishmael Butler: No. Not At all. In New York, they used to do this thing called the Funk Hut. It was like a freestyle session at this club uptown and my mom was in Seattle and we was beefing about this school thing and everything.I was acting like I had a show but really I was just freestyling at this open mic situation but I was fronting to her like I had a show. So I just told her that in passing so I get up there and go to the show, and my mom’s in Seattle and I’m in New York. I get up there to do my thing and I look out in the crowd and my mom was there, bro. She was like, ‘No matter what I rock with you. I’m telling you this not because I don’t want you to pursue your dreams but when you do your thing, I’m there.’ So I think about my mom all the time man.

The coolest thing is for you your mom was like “Hey I talk it and I live it and I’ll show up even if you’re just freestyling.” The last thing I want to really ask you is this: I feel like being a fan of yours and following you from jump street, I feel like you’ve kind of followed a straight line from Digable to Cherrywine to Shabazz back to Digable. I feel like it’s kind of like Robert Atlman said, everyone else went zig zags all around but you’re moving in a straight line.

People either re-discovered you or found you for the first time and was like ‘Oh I didn’t know you did that, oh I didn’t know you were a part of this thing, oh this is new.’ But I feel like you’ve always maintained the same craftsmanship and identity, so how does it feel to outlast the “jazz rap” tag and then the “neo-soul” tag with Cherrywine? Now you’re kind of the “afro-futurist”, whatever the hell that is. What does it mean to keep going and enduring through all those things? These tags fade but you’re still going.

Ishmael Butler: Old head niggas taught me long ago, they was intellectual but they never studied nothing at no university. They told me that this notion that success means these things that can be seen. Superficial and material things that that’s what success can be equated to, they said it was false and I thought so much of them that I ended up believing in them and then that belief led me to find out things that motivated me to apply that belief to my life.

I know all that shit comes and goes. You fuck with music, you love music but would you be doing this whether you were getting some from it or not? And I know that I would so all them things man, don’t really, I’m not saying they don’t mean anything to me because they do have meaning, but it doesn’t matter nor dictate what I’m gonna get up and do that day because I would’ve been doing it anyway.

What you’re saying is actually a very profound Buddhist thought which is success is invisible.

Ishmael Butler: I never knew that but yeah that’s what’s up.

Your old heads were very wise.

Ishmael Butler: If you look at it, Buddhist shit that was just by fly cats that just sat down and was like, hold up though. I get it and that’s all it is really, you don’t have to be taught that. If you look around and observe, you’ll know that.

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